Midtown Raleigh News

Former chair: James Merrill is Wake’s choice for superintendent

Former school board chairman Ron Margiotta says Virginia educator James Merrill is the Wake County school board’s choice as its new superintendent, but the hiring has stalled over Merrill’s compensation.

Margiotta, who has spoken with people familiar with the search, said Tuesday that the board picked Merrill, the superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, in a 5-4 closed session vote May 29. The runner-up was Ann Clark, the deputy superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

The board had scheduled a public vote for June 4, but pulled the item from the agenda that afternoon. Margiotta said that the vote was delayed because members couldn’t agree on details of Merrill’s compensation. He said the board, which is to meet behind closed doors Thursday night, is deciding whether still to hire Merrill.

Margiotta joined the board in 2003, became chair after a Republican sweep in 2009 and lost his re-election bid in 2011, when Democrats regained a majority. During an interview Tuesday, he said he felt Merrill wouldn’t be the right choice to lead the state’s largest school district. Merrill worked in Wake from 1984 to 2000, rising to associate superintendent of administration, in charge of budget, finance and human resources.

“He’s part of the status quo, the old guard,” Margiotta said Tuesday. “The school system is in transition.”

School board chairman Keith Sutton said he couldn’t respond to Margiotta’s account because the discussions have been held in confidential closed sessions. He said he still anticipates the board will announce a new superintendent next week.

Merrill declined comment Tuesday because the board has not publicly identified their choice.

Andy Taylor, an N.C. State University political science professor, said Tuesday that the board’s decision to postpone the vote has put it in an awkward situation.

“They’re in the position where everybody was saying, ‘You have someone, so where the heck is he?’ ” he said.

The board has been looking for a permanent superintendent since Tony Tata was fired in September. Tata is now state secretary of transportation.

Last week, Cathy Moore, the deputy superintendent for school performance, was named interim superintendent.

Merrill, Clark and Dana Bedden, superintendent of the Irving Independent School District in Texas, are the finalists from among a field of 23 applicants. All three came to town last month to tour schools, meet school employees, take questions at a public forum and hold a final interview with the board.

Clark said Tuesday she has not heard from the board since her interview.

“I’m just awaiting word,” she said.

Efforts to reach Bedden were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Merrill, 62, is the only finalist with experience in Wake. He left in 2000 to become superintendent of Alamance-Burlington Schools.

Merrill took his position leading the 70,000-student Virginia Beach school system in 2006. Merrill had also applied that year to become superintendent in Wake, according to Margiotta, who was on the board then. The position went to Del Burns, who was deputy superintendent at the time.

Since leaving Wake, Merrill has gone on to win superintendent of the year awards in North Carolina and Virginia. At last month’s community forum, he said he looked forward to returning to the 150,000-student Wake school system.

Board members met for more than three hours on May 29 after interviewing the finalists. Sutton said this week that they thought at the time that they could resolve any remaining details by the June 4 meeting.

However, “We weren’t where we needed to be,” Sutton said.

Margiotta said the deal was held up at the last minute by Merrill’s compensation request, particularly for his buyout package. Tata received one year’s compensation of $253,625 when he was fired.

Taylor, the political science professor, said Merrill’s supporters will have to decide whether Clark is a strong enough alternative candidate that they don’t have to hire Merrill at any cost.

“At what point are they willing to cut bait?” said Taylor, who said he doesn’t have direct knowledge of the contract negotiations.

Charlotte Observer reporter Ann Doss Helms contributed to this report.